BlackBerry: Soul Phone Service

Did you ever have a BlackBerry?

The rise and fall of Blackberry remains one of the great Canadian tech stories of the 21st century. Anchored by Mike Lazaridis and Jim Balsillie, the tiny cell phone company rose from nothing to dominate the market in the early 00’s. At its peak, BlackBerry was a global competitor. At its lowest, it became a poor joke, laughed at by millions the world over. Now, in his new film, Blackberry, writer/director Matt Johnson brings the story of a device that helped revolutionized the communication industry to life and highlights the destruction that they left behind.

Written and directed by Johnson, Blackberry tells the story of Mike Lazaridis (Jay Baruchel) and Douglas Fregin (Johnson again), two Canadian tech geniuses who believe that they’ve cracked the secret to the smartphone. However, they remain deep in debt and lack the swagger necessary to break into the industry. In response, the two hire recently unemployed tyrant, Jim Balsillie (Glenn Howerton), to help guide the ship into the rough waters of the business world. As BlackBerry slowly starts to make noise in the cell phone market, so too do the problems behind the scenes begin to grow more dangerous.

Backed by a number of solid local talent playing major roles, the cast feels like a ‘Canadian Who’s Who’. Nevertheless, despite some good work by Baruchel, icon Michael Ironside, and even Johnson himself, the fire of the film lies at the feet of Howerton. At all times, Howerton feels absolutely larger than life as Balsillie. Every moment that he has on screen, he dominates the room. Whether he is steam rolling his tech support or going toe-to-toe with corporate giants, Balsillie is shown to be a man who is not to be taken lightly.

He’s the most ‘unCanadian’ player in the market.

Interestingly, when held up against Baruchel’s more humble performance, both Balsillie and Lazaridis provide an interesting counterbalance of the Canadian ethos. On the one hand, Lazaridis is portrayed as a man without a voice who refuses to assert himself, especially in the face of larger bullies. On the other hand, however, Balsillie is portrayed as a man who will forcefully hide any lack of self-image with perhaps the greatest performance of imposter system that we’ve seen on screen in recent years. Both men connect with a deeper heart of the Canadian mentality and highlight a demand to be noticed by Big Brother across the border.

In many ways, BlackBerry is Canada’s answer to 2013’s The Social Network. However, unlike Fincher‘s cautionary tale of a man who was willing to sell his neighbor, BlackBerry is ultimately about selling your soul. Although the film (eventually) involves travelling around the world, Johnson somehow keeps it feeling small. In doing so, the film consistently reminds us of the uphill battle that ‘the little cell phone that could’ was facing on a global market. This is very much a story of innovation and hope until it isn’t. You see, there’s poison within this BlackBerry. As the lure of success is dangled in front of their merry band, Johnson recognizes the damage that can be left behind when the path of compromise is taken.

At the same time, Johnson also uses his characters to undercut Canadian stereotypes. When we first meet Mark, there is a meekness about his spirit that suggests that success may never be in his future. As such, Johnson uses the film to challenge the notions of the Canadian identity. Is it possible to become a major player on a global market with a Canadian apologetic ethos? Or does it require something more? In Blackberry, Johnson seems to recognize that the grave dangers of success are the decisions that are made when you were asked to sell your soul. Humility and meekness can fall by the wayside quickly in the face of deadlines, corporate threat, and, perhaps most enticing of all, opportunity. For Lazaridis and Fregin, the only course to victory is to hire a ‘shark’ in order to bring down the ‘pirates’ of the tech industry. 

But, once that line is crossed, the bodies left in their wake can mount very, very quickly.

Sharply written and executed, this BlackBerry is worth picking. In the rise and fall of BlackBerry, Johnson makes good use of the opportunity to explore much more than the cruel world of cell phones. In the most Canadian (and unCanadian) ways possible, he is more interested in asking whether or not success is worth the cost of one’s soul.

BlackBerry is available in theatres on Friday, May 12th, 2023.

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